Monday, September 27, 2010

Vegetative State

With the war on fast food-you know trans fat banning, farmers' market promoting, and menu labeling-you'd think that most New Yorkers (and Americans as a whole) would be getting the message that it is healthier if they eat their vegetables. As it turns out, not so much-as the NY Times laments: "Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables. This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a comprehensive nationwide behavioral study of fruit and vegetable consumption. Only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day, it concluded. (And no, that does not include French fries.)"

All of the professional hectoring has been, it certainly seems, a waste of breathe-and as far as Mother Bloomberg is concerned, it would have been more cost effective and productive if he had pushed his busybodies over at the DOH to actually address its core mission; to wit, the rising rodent and bed bug infestation in NYC that has proliferated while the nannies were scheming to get rid of your french fries and other junk foods.

Who would have guessed that the lecturing of public health experts and loons from groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest would trigger opposite results from what was intended? Time to reboot: "The amount of vegetables Americans eat is less than half of what public health officials had hoped. Worse, it has barely budged since 2000. “It is disappointing,” said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a pediatrician who helped compile the report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the American diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn’t working."

What's a nanny to do? It seems that our current lifestyles aren't conducive to healthy vegetating: "The nation has long had a complicated relationship with vegetables. People know that vegetables can improve health. But they’re a lot of work. In refrigerators all over the country, produce often dies a slow, limp death because life becomes too busy. “The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it,” Mr. Balzer said. In the wrong hands, vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the supermarket, they’re a relatively expensive way to fill a belly. “Before we want health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost,” Mr. Balzer said."

And the big bad food industry? It's doing its damnedest to try to get the folks to eat their veggies-and business is booming, but only for a certain population segment: "The food industry has tried to make eating vegetables easier. Sales of convenience vegetables, like packages of cut broccoli designed to go right into the microwave, are growing. Washed, ready-to-eat bagged salads are a $3-billion-a-year business...To be sure, vegetables are making strides in certain circles. Women, as well as people who are older and more educated and have higher incomes, tend to eat more vegetables, said Dr. Foltz, the pediatrician who worked on the C.D.C. report."

So, once again, income and class are the key underlying variables-in spite of all of the "Fresh Initiatives," that are metastasizing all over the country: "The vegetable even has the first lady, Michelle Obama, on its side. She planted an organic garden on the White House lawn and talks up vegetables as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity. The government keeps trying, too, to get its message across. It now recommends four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables (that’s nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day. Some public health advocates have argued that when the guidelines are updated later this year, they should be made even clearer. One proposal is to make Americans think about it visually, filling half the plate or bowl with vegetables."

But new strategies are needed-and the canard that local supermarkets and bodegas in low income neighborhoods were conspiring against the health of their customers needs to be set aside for the falsehood that it is. The demand side of the equation hasn't been activated-case closed: "But clear guidance probably isn’t enough. Health officials now concede that convincing a nation that shuns vegetables means making vegetables more affordable and more available. “We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” Dr. Foltz said. And the choices need to become ingrained."

What this says to us, is that the mindset of those like Dr. Frieden and Dr. Farley-our Bobsey Twins of public health in NYC-is off kilter with reality. And Frieden in particular once told us that it was simply too difficult to change motivation-implying that coercion and taxation was a better route. (kind of scary in the age of national health care) The two doctors represent an elitist world view-symbolized by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

Kerry, frustrated by the rising tide of popular discontent, summed it up thusly: "We have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what’s happening,”  When you believe that the folks are plain dumb, coercion becomes the optimum mode of public policy-and Frieden is a charter member of the People are Dumb Society.

But, if class status is the largest factor in vegetable eating, then it might make sense to start trimming the government fat that these health bureaucrats represent; lowering the government's waste line may help muscle up a private sector economy that will allow more folks to raise their standards of living. Or more simply, just butt out. But the more the costs of health care are socialized, the greater the imperative that behavior will need to be controlled-and that is, in our view, a greater danger to our health than the refusal to eat broccoli.